Why did Brenda from Bristol become such a memorable 12 seconds in this general election campaign? Though her comment was brief – just 35 words – it was vivid, unscripted, whole-hearted, astute, and redolent with a for-real person’s personality. It felt, for all those reasons, authentic.
Over the next few weeks, we will see and read hours of interviews, speeches, statements, arguments and analysis of what the election means and how the next stage in the nation’s life should and shouldn’t play out. The joyful frenzy of online and social journalism will supply dopamine hits every few seconds to any of us who wants laughs and the latest pithy invective.
Yet after all that, will we have a better picture of ourselves in our current peculiar situation than we took away from watching Brenda? Will we come to understand the bits of the country we don’t already agree with?
At their best, narrative journalists expand the restrictive and mannered news voice into a fully human voiceGiles Wilson, Well Told
It seems, and I know I’m not alone, like this complex political situation, whose outcome will affect so much, offers a crucial opportunity for UK reporters to step out beyond the Dept-of-Chasing-Tails and put some real effort into locating and telling true stories that reveal timely, useful, deeper truths.
Such efforts may be time consuming. The resulting work – known to many by the term “narrative journalism” – may demand bold presentation. It will probably need more than 12 seconds. But the rewards for the public, and the publication, are worth it.
We might not in the UK be completely familiar with the genre, but it is increasingly recognised and forcefully used here too, as a part of our coverage that stands out, offers deep user engagement, and as the sort of work our brightest young journalists aspire to. It’s the stuff the cool kids want to do – strong-voiced and factual storytelling, with deeply defined ideas under exploration. Indeed they are already doing it, though often under the radar of most mainstream media.
At their best, narrative journalists expand the restrictive and mannered news voice into a fully human voice, with which they bring in closely observed characters, scenes and dialogue to explore revealing situations.
They report with suspense, surprise, and depth in that voice, and are equally at home in papers, magazines, online, podcasts, TV and books. We may think of narrative journalism as most commonly used for longform, which, indeed, thanks to mobile reading and social sharing, has reached a modern golden age.
But it works with short forms too, and in all media. The emphasis is on seeing stories from a human perspective, not just from an institutional one.
It’s about telling stories well – and not just long stories. Just consider the explosion of human-voiced podcasts that are really worth listening to. These days they’re not made by some odd person or group amusing one another with the mic turned on.
They’re carefully researched and put together with highest production values – take Carrie Gracie’s re-telling of the Bo Xilai story if you want to try out a fine example. Or consider how much more you will discover about the migrant crisis by reading Emma Jane Kirby’s The Optician of Lampedusa than you will from a dozen news reports.
Mark Kramer, founder of Boston University’s Power of Narrative conference, and similar conferences now in Norway and Amsterdam, has had a hand in bringing together the best narrative journalists in the US, and helping the genre mature over the past two decades. He says:
“Narrative journalism helps sort out complex political situations. Take the piece in The New York Times Magazine last weekend, portraying a distinguished Turkish MD who’s had to flee, describing his harassment, arrests, and the evolving national power-grab these human-scale events represent, so the whole political landscape falls into place.
A narrative approach to political reporting – alongside regular, fine political reporting – brings to us real peopleMark Kramer, Power of Narrative
“The cool viral clip of Brenda from Bristol contains most of its information sub-textually, installed in viewers’ reactions to her apparent frustration and dismay. It’s in the melody of her voice and the wonderful expressiveness of her face.
“It’s as though this isn’t reported information. It feels experienced, and authentic. We become her neighbour, chatting with Brenda in the front yard. Yet, it’s a framed, disciplined clip, showing us what’s going on.
“A narrative approach to political reporting – alongside regular, fine political reporting – brings to us real people: blusterers, slouches, cynics, dumb fanatics, sharp opportunists, warm and concerned average folks. The varied crowd who, in regular newsvoice articles become merely citizens with opinions they’ll carry along into voting booths. Such is the strength of narrative.”
Kramer and I have started building a narrative movement here in the UK. It’s called Well Told, and will take place on the 27 and 28 May. We hope, in the long run, to have a similar effect, to help build an international community of storytelling journalists in the UK who want their work to matter and to be the best it can be.
“There’s fifty years of experience and ethical practice to share,” says Kramer. “The community of journalists who show up at our sessions in Boston and in Norway are dedicated, imaginative, and have become deeply established in the nations’ media.”
Giles Wilson was founding editor of the BBC News Magazine. He now runs Harpoon Productions Ltd and is director of the Well Told Longform & Narrative Journalism Conference which is taking place in London in May.